Monday, 29 August 2011

How guided tours work

There I was, where I never expected to be, breathing hot Sicilian air slowly and deeply and, where possible, doing so in the shade. Jean-Claude had decided we would do a guided tour of Sicily and a comprehensive one at that.

In the past, during my years in the hotel and tourism sector, I was on the ‘other side of the fence’. I was often responsible for key accounts with tour operators and meeting their needs, keeping them more than happy to choose my hotels for their tour groups.

 Here in Sicily I was on a tour with a tour guide from tour operator Donatello, having hotels and meals organised and sitting on a bus or walking for hours on planned excursions rather than doing everything independently.

This has its pluses and minuses. The pluses are not having to think for yourself and knowing in advance what most of it will cost though many activity costs were in addition. The minuses are having no choice about the length of your day and having to move hotels all the time, eat what you are given (which offers NO choice and is often not very authentic) and get up early to be on the bus by 7.45am each day. You can’t stop and shop if you want to, when you want to, and as a consequence I bought almost nothing. However, I did see a lot of Sicily.

The biggest downside for me was the language barrier. Since we were members of a French group everything was in French. Our tour guide was Italian, a charming guy named Salvatore, who spoke French with a very strong Italian accent. Every other word ended in ‘a’ or ‘e’. I have no mastery of French, it was nightmarish each day trying to figure out what he was saying. Consequently I learnt very little about what I was seeing. Donatello has an excellent system enabling the tour guide to speak and teach the group about what they are saying, even from a distance. You don’t have to stand right next to the guy to hear him. You can wander off a wee way and take photos if you feel like it.

 We each wore a little audioguide thingee with an ear bud in our ears which fed us what he was saying. I spent all day for 8 days immersed in rapid contemporary French, including the Italian-flavoured tour information and dining with French residents. It was tough. I couldn’t help feeling excluded and isolated but it was great to be in Sicily. Some group members tried to slow down their speech and engage with me. When they did this I enjoyed being able to participate.

It’s also an interesting experience to travel with other people, strangers. You learn a little about them and you do tend to bond a bit with a few. Most of them were very agreeable to be with, helpful and colourful, like one guy a wee bit younger than me whom we nicknamed Indiana Jones because of his hat and outgoing nature. There was a mix in ages from very young adults who were part of a family group, to couples and also fairly elderly solo travellers. All could be accommodated easily on walks because no one was disabled or very unfit.

This was only the second time I had been to a country where I couldn’t speak any of the language. I do not know Italian other than about 5 words I’d taught myself. The French said learning Italian was fairly easy for them because it has a lot in common with French, but most of them had never made the effort to learn it. Oddly enough, I discovered my English ability to be a great asset. It’s more useful than French, in Europe, certainly when dealing with shopkeepers or hotels. I was able to problem-solve a few times whereas JC couldn’t because they couldn’t understand him. Cool!

Meals were really challenging for me for three reasons. Firstly because they start later than I am accustomed and after a physically shattering day queuing and slogging up and down hills I was ready for bed rather than dinner. Secondly, because there was NO choice of entrees mains or desserts. This was a surprise because I know that many tour groups offer at least a limited choice of menu. Fish, followed by fish, or Chicken followed by fish... I don’t eat either and most meals consisted of this. It was a relief to me that Salvatore our tour guide spoke to hotel staff each meal and asked them to provide something edible for me. This always consisted of veal. Every dinner I had a veal dish. Some were crappy, others delicious. Disappointingly, none were my favourite Italian dish – Veal Marsala.

The third difficulty with meals is that, incredibly, you are provided with a minimum of 7 dishes per day. Imagine doing this for a week. This is breakfast, three plates for lunch and three plates for dinner, sometimes four. I had to pace myself and eat mostly partial plates and leave the rest. Most people didn’t pace themselves and most were much bigger than me. Most drank alcohol on top of this. I stuck to still water, the best way to rehydrate.

Balancing all that was our lack of responsibility. We didn’t have to plan, worry, check, change arrangements, argue. Salvatore and Donatello took care of that. All we had to do was be shepherded around.

 It’s not a relaxing holiday style; we were constantly exhausted by the physical demands of walking so long in such heavy heat (more than 30 degrees Celsius each day). We quickly learnt to only walk in shaded areas or sides of the road to avoid heatstroke and sunburn. From time to time Salvatore would give us an hour or an hour and a half to look around by ourselves or have a much needed drink at a cafe. That helped. Our bus driver was excellent. He had his work cut out for him avoiding accidents in narrow Sicilian streets. We had a close shave at one point as a truck tried to pass our bus in a tiny street. Our driver skilfully braked and judged things to the thickness of the paintwork which meant I didn’t get wiped out of my window seat. There was an audible gasp from our members when it happened but it was soon forgotten.

I can recommend a guided tour but be warned that it’s tiring and may not always please you. I got sick of watermelon and churches but I enjoyed the camaraderie of others, the ancient ruins, the company of JC, the chance to pinch myself to tell me the whole thing was actually real, the history, the excellent organisation. Next post looks at Palermo the capital city and what are the brickbats and bouquets there.

Photos show cats too hot to do anything, Salvatore our genial guide, being part of a tour group.

Friday, 26 August 2011

A ‘breathtaking’ view

For her final day in Paris, Jean-Claude and I took Laura back to Paris. Back to a couple of iconic landmarks and to stroll around parts we hadn’t visited before.

On our earlier visits to Paris it had not been possible to go up the Eiffel Tour because the queues were ridiculously long. It’s best to arrive at 9am. Unfortunately we had to arrive later. Never mind, we snacked between the grand old lady’s legs and let fate take its course. There are always plenty of security personal present here: police and the army.

Laura was absolutely chuffed when two armed soldiers agreed to have their photo taken with her. I explained it was for French-NZ relations – well, a similar line had worked with President Clinton when I met him last year. We still couldn't spare an hour and a half standing in a queue so we abandoned going up the tower and found an alternative instead.

We walked across the bridge to the Palais de Chaillot/Trocadero but it started to pour. We decided to head to the Champs Elysee and the Arc de Triomphe. None of us had been to the top and I was determined that Laura get a view of Paris from on high.

This climb is not for the unfit. It’s up a narrow staircase and it’s wise to let the vigorous youths pass and go on ahead. This gives the lactic acid in your muscles a bit of time to disperse before you have to do it all over again, and again.

That said, the 360 degree view from the top is great, not as high as the Eiffel tower but still lovely to see all the boulevards radiating out from this central point. You need to pay an entrance fee of course but this monument by Napoleon is well restored and worth doing.

The next day I had the sad task of seeing Laura off on the Eurostar, bound for London and then back to New Zealand. I don't know when we will see each other again. Her life is changing rapidly and mine is so completely different to what we shared together last year. My future has still to unfold and reveal any sort of stability. For my daughter and me it's the end of an era but not the end. I sincerely hope she can find a way to visit me again for much longer. I'd like to take her to the South of France. I hope it won't be too many years until we share our time together again.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

How to see France in half a day

It’s somewhat of a novelty item. Located in Elancourt and accessible by train and bus France in Miniature boasts 116 French monuments, chateaux, villages and churches.

France Miniature is a 5-hectare (12-acre) outdoor park in the shape of France that contains about 160 outdoor 1/30-scale models of major French monuments and landmarks. Monuments are placed in the park to correlate approximately with their real-world locations in France.

Many of the models are animated, and all of the country's best known landmarks are represented (the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, Lourdes, Mont Saint Michelle etc).

A lot of effort has gone into these models and it’s fun to wander about and take photos. There are self-operating rides and attractions for children but it’s best to arrive early to avoid queues. Signage is often confusing so at times we found ourselves in a different region of France than the logical progression. Visitors to France will enjoy it. French residents are likely to find it unrealistic and a couple of the models such as St Tropez are very inadequate.

A word of warning: This place can be expensive. Their website gives various prices but it turned out a lot more expensive than their site indicates when we actually turned up to buy: Twenty-three euros plus the price of audioguides each plus the cost of parking. One of our audioguides didn’t work but they did not offer to reimburse us. Wasps just love sheltering inside the models but we were not menaced by any.

Beware the hot sun. You spend several hours walking on concrete paths with no shelter so use sunblock. Even then it gets too hot at times.

A jewel of Renaissance architecture – Azay-le-Rideau

This pretty chateau is situated on the Indre River. It displays Renaissance architectural styles with a touch of Medieval roots.

Gilles Berthelot, Treasurer-General of the Finances of France under King Francis I and mayor of Tours, began reconstructing Azay-le-Rideau's earlier medieval castle, that was part of his wife's inheritance. However, it was his wife, Philippe who directed the course of the works, including its central internal stair that is Azay's most remarkable feature.

Just as Chenonceau and Cheverny were, Azay-le-Rideau was the work of a woman: Madame Berthelot-- even though what she left behind still somewhat resembled a fortress. It was under the rule of Louix XIV that the castle of Azay-le-Rideau acquired all its present-day elegance and witnessed its most lavish period. Even though it was saved from destruction during the Revolution, it lost its medieval castle appearance, namely because of the demolition of its turret.

When Berthelot was suspected of collusion in embezzlement he was forced to flee from incomplete Azay-le-Rideau in 1528; he never saw the château again. Instead, the king confiscated the property and gave it as a reward to one of his high-ranking soldiers. Alas, kings often found ways to help themselves to castles when it suited them, often on dishonest pretexts.

Over the centuries, it changed hands several times until the early part of the twentieth century, when it was purchased by the French government and restored. The interior was completely refurbished with a collection of Renaissance pieces. Today, the château is operated by the Centre des monuments nationaux. Audioguides are available in English and guided tours are available in French.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Water views – Chateau de Chenonceau

This chateau is famous for being built over and across the River Cher, a splendid feat of engineering and design which was overseen by Thomas Bohier’s wife Katherine, while he was away fighting wars. It required a fortified castle and mill to be demolished though the tower of the original building still stands proudly near the entrance to the chateau. This chateau was not designed for military purposes but does have a guards’ room for protecting visiting royalty. Royalty and the nobility treated the chateau like a football.

It was seized from Bohier's son by King Francis I of France for unpaid debts to the Crown. After Francis' death in 1547, Henry II offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who became passionately attached to the château. She had the arched bridge constructed, joining the château to its opposite bank. She then oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees.

Diane de Poitiers was the mistress of the castle, but ownership remained with the crown until 1555, when years of delicate legal manoeuvers finally yielded possession to her. However, after King Henry II died in 1559, his widow and regent Catherine de Medici had Diane expelled by forcing Diane to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Chenonceau her own favourite residence, adding a new series of gardens.

As Regent of France, Catherine spent a fortune on the château and on spectacular night-time parties. In 1560, the first ever fireworks display seen in France took place during the celebrations marking the ascension to the throne of Catherine's son Francis II. The grand gallery, which extended along the existing bridge to cross the entire river, was dedicated in 1577.

On Catherine's death in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife of King Henry III. At Chenonceau Louise was told of her husband's assassination and she fell into a state of depression, spending the remainder of her days wandering aimlessly along the château's vast corridors dressed in mourning clothes amidst sombre black.

Château de Chenonceau was bought by the Duke of Bourbon in 1720. Little by little, he sold off all of the castle's contents. Many of the fine statues ended up at Versailles. The estate itself was finally sold to a squire named Claude Dupin.

Claude's wife (daughter of financier Samuel Bernard and grandmother of George Sand), Madame Louise Dupin, brought life back to the castle by entertaining leaders of The Enlightenment such asVoltaire, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution, preserving it from being destroyed by the Revolutionary Guard because it was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles. The chateau changed hands many times.

In 1913, the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, bought the château and still own it to this day. During World War I the gallery was used as a hospital ward; during the Second War it was a means of escaping from the Nazi occupied zone on one side of the River Cher to the "free" Vichy zone on the opposite bank.

An architectural mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance, Other than the Royal Palace of Versailles, Chenonceau is the most visited château in France. This chateau offers the ultimate in audioguides. You receive an iPhone programmed with an interesting commentary as well as photos of the room you are in and supplementary information if you wish. This is how non-guided visits should be done.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Grandiose Chambord-Loire Valley

What visit to the Loire Valley chateaux would be complete without a visit to this mammoth residence. It really is over the top in terms of extravagance and size yet it is somewhat unsatisfying to visit. This is because it is largely devoid of furnishings and human context.

It was built originally by François 1st as a hunting lodge and to display his power and wealth though he barely spent seven weeks there in total. There is debate about who designed it. Some suggest Leonardo da Vinci (who was supported by the King at this time and lived nearby) may have been the architect. Certainly the amazing double helix spiral staircase at the centre is reminiscent of his designs. The rooftop silhouette is so over the top with its hundreds of towers and chimneys that it resembles a mini city skyline.

The massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings meant heating was impractical. The château was not surrounded by a village or estate so there was no immediate source of food other than game. This meant that all food had to be brought with the group, usually numbering up to 2,000 people at a time. This sort of lifestyle is rather difficult for most of us to fathom these days.

As a result of all the above, the château was completely unfurnished during this period. All furniture, wall coverings, eating implements were brought specifically for each hunting trip, a major logistical exercise. It is for this reason that much furniture from the era was built to be disassembled to facilitate transportation. After François died of a heart attack in 1547, the château was not used for almost a century.

Various kings of France, as well as Napoleon, stayed there or attempted renovations or ignored it through the centuries. During the revolution its panelling and wooden doors were burnt for warmth while bits and pieces were being auctioned off. It’s a stark contrast to Cheverny which was never a royal residence and which never suffered deprivations.

  Chambord is the largest chateau on the Loire, and the largest in France.

Château Chambord was confiscated as enemy property in 1915, but the family of the Duke of Parma sued to recover it, and that suit was not settled until 1932; restoration work was not begun until a few years after World War II ended in 1945. Today, Chambord is a major tourist attraction.

In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the art collections of the Louvre (including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo) were stored at the Château de Chambord. An American B-24 Liberator bomber crashed onto the château lawn on June 22, 1944. Château Chambord was the inspiration for the Beast's castle in the 1991 animated Disney film Beauty and the Beast.

Audioguides are available. We enjoyed climbing the staircases to the ramparts, looking down on the lawns and the surrounding countryside. There aren't any gardens to speak of but there is a canal. If you get peckish there are eateries outside the chateau grounds.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Keeping it in the family - Cheverny

We were about to spend two days exploring four selected chateaux in the Loire Valley. We started with Cheverny, a small chateau well furnished and maintained.

The Cheverny estate has belonged to the Hurault family for more than six centuries. This is unusual in that most changed hands or were destroyed during historical events. The architect’s father was chancellor (Justice Minister) to French kings Henri III and Henri IV.

The present Château de Cheverny is an original jewel among the more famous monuments that stretch along the Loire Valley and is built in the purest Louis XIII classical style.

Cheverny, built in the first part of the 17th Century, is a good example of this style. Its delicate features stand out through the perfect whiteness of the stones from the Bourré quarries in the Cher Valley. This particular stone not only comes out white, but also becomes harder with time. However, this almost rigid architectural layout also has its contrasts, in the variety of roofing styles, from domes to bell-towers.

The building work was under the direction of architect, master-mason and sculptor, Jacques Bougier, who was very well-known in his time. He also worked on a wing of the nearby Château de Blois. His work on a royal castle shows Cheverny’s desire for quality. Unfortunately, Bougier died before completing his work. Cheverny’s main staircase is the work of an unknown craftsman who simply left his initials and a date on the ground floor: 1634.


The Château de Cheverny is perfectly preserved because it was built all at once. Nothing has been changed. Thanks to this, Cheverny has maintained the same exterior for the last 350 years. The furnishings and furniture are lovely. You can easily imagine how the family must have lived there (and still do from time to time).

By the entrance to the estate you come across the pack of hunting dogs in their enclosure. We got rather damp walking up to the entrance to the chateau itself but that seemed to be the weather we'd have to expect for the week. Audioguides in English are available.

Friday, 19 August 2011

One night in Paris

One of the iconic places to go in Paris, after dark, is the Moulin Rouge, the cabaret made famous by post-impressionist painter Henri Toulouse Lautrec (the short guy). Henri, a friend to Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde, used to hang out in Montmartre and paint the dancers and prostitutes amongst other subjects. He drew a series of posters for the cabaret and thus earned himself a permanent seat there as well as a place to display his art.

His painting career lasted less than 20 years and ended due to alcoholism and syphilis in his 36th year but his style is synonymous with the famous cabaret where the cancan was created. I was determined that Laura and I would experience the magic of this place.

I’d reserved dinner and a show in advance. You can choose your menu online according to taste and price. I’d also reserved a hotel room in the middle of Pigalle; Villa Royale, which is in a Belle Epoque style in keeping with our Montmartre experiences.

Travelling by train and metro again we were delighted to discover that our hotel was just across from the metro station and that our room had been upgraded to a view of the Sacre Coeur cathedral.

Our bathroom was spacious and the receptionist very helpful. As you go up in the lift, artworks scroll down the side. Each room has an individual name. Ours was Claude Debussy, located on the sixth floor.
Laura was still suffering the effects of jetlag. Tired with constant headaches, it was difficult for her to relax and admire the city but it didn’t stop the guys in the area from jumping out at her, offering to marry her (or do other things). Slightly amusing I think it also unnerved her a bit, at least initially. I explained that this is the red light district of Paris so it’s to be expected. Sex shops out-number any other kind.

Too tired to drink our half-bottles of wine, we got ourselves into our evening clothes and makeup just as the sky turned ominously dark and the wind picked up. Soon the curtains were lashing themselves about and we had to shut ourselves out from the view. All except the view of the rain pelting down. It was fortunate I’d thought to bring my umbrella and I knew it wasn’t all that far to walk to the cabaret. We completely underestimated what would happen and we could never have imagined it anyway.

By the time we’d tottered down in our high heels and best party clothes the weather had turned unbelievably bad. No sensible person was walking on the streets. In fact you could barely make out the footpaths because the downpours were so heavy. So heavy and fast that the stormwater system couldn’t cope after five minutes and the streets flooded. Each intersection with a side road or alleyway became a major ford. With only one umbrella between us I hugged Laura as close as she could breathe. We had to walk without delay because we needed to collect the tickets for the performance and get into the queue. A walk of 5 paces saw anyone soaked to the skin. We had to walk a few hundred metres.

The shop keepers and their customers were sheltering in shop doorways gazing in amazement at the amount of water falling and then in amusement as we two stomped by up to our ankles, evening shoes completely drowned. There came a moment when we reached some traffic lights and had to step off the pavement to cross. I had a bad feeling about it and the unusual sense of anticipation I was receiving from a couple of smirking spectators did nothing to dispel it.

We stepped onto the crossing and up to our knees in raging water, dresses flowing in the torrent, leggings inundated, hair drenched. A shriek of laughter went up at our plight and we had to laugh too. It was funny in a spontaneous way. It was the most amazing downpour we had ever seen. We were having some unexpected experiences but it was highly unpleasant standing in a queue, waiting to be let in, in such a cold and soaked state. The cloakroom and its fee is compulsory. I handed over two soaked jackets from me and one from Laura plus our umbrella. The cloakroom ladies looked at us as if we’d survived a major natural disaster.

We forgot being wet and cold as we soaked up the atmosphere, the food and the extraordinary entertainment of the evening for three hours. The topless Doris girls are lovely to watch and nothing is sleazy. The choreographies and costumes are outstanding, the variety acts like the ventriloquist, the little ponies, the acrobats and clowns are first rate. Everything is highly professional and then more some. It’s expensive so most of the patrons would be tourists or business people with sizeable expense accounts but it was worth the months of scrimping. It turned out the high point of Laura’s trip. For a moment the two of us could lose ourselves in one of the worlds special spectacles and do it together.

Afterwards, damp coats retrieved, we walked down drier streets and past the grins of various men back to our hotel room and fell into bed. We were looking forward to going up the Eiffel Tower the next day.

It wasn’t to be. Laura became unexpected ill and the next morning was spent trying to find a doctor in Pigalle who could see us at short notice. We did find one and then it was challenging for me to do the explanations in French and the translations for Laura in English. We got there and obtained some effective medicine but it was clear we’d have to go straight home. A terrible shame but nothing else for it. We had a spare day up our sleeves the following week.
Photos show Henri, the Villa Royale at Pigalle, the view (literally) from our window and Laura in her party clothes.